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Updated Apr 16, 2013 - 6:42 pm

Arizona school funding debate back in court

PHOENIX -- Arizona is taking its fight against a decade-old effort by voters to increase public school funding to the state Supreme Court.

Attorney General Thomas Horne has asked the Arizona Supreme Court to reverse a lower court ruling that requires the Legislature to provide an annual boost in public school funding to cover inflation.

Horne said in his petition filed in March that the Legislature shouldn't be beholden to a 2000 proposition approved by voters requiring annual inflation adjustments to school funding. Horne said voters don't have the constitutional authority to order the Legislature by statute to make the appropriation.

``Rather than being the voters' agents, who are required to enact legislation in accordance with the voters' directives, the legislators are the voters' representatives, who have plenary legislative discretion to address any subject within the scope of civil government subject only to state or federal constitutional limits,'' Horne wrote in his petition.

But education proponents challenging the unfunded law argue that the Legislature can't choose which voter-approved laws to enforce.

``The Legislature and state do have to obey instructions from the voters,'' said Donald M. Peters, a Phoenix lawyer for school districts and associations that filed the lawsuit.

The Legislature in 2000 sent voters Proposition 301, which required the state to adjust school funding by about 2 percent per year to allow for inflation. It passed, but the Legislature stopped funding it in 2010.

School officials claim they have lost about $250 million in inflation adjustments in the past three budget years, but Gov. Jan Brewer's office has put the total at $188 million.

A spokeswoman for the Arizona Supreme Court said Tuesday that a decision to review the case has not been made. Education activists want the high court to deny the review to ensure the Legislature includes the additional funding in its current budget negotiations for the fiscal year beginning in July.

``This is huge,'' said Timothy Hogan of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. ``It comes at a time when school districts are scraping for every last dime that they can find.''

A Maricopa County Superior Court ruling in 2011 determined the measure effectively only requests an appropriation and was not a mandate.

But the state Court of Appeals ruled in January that any future school funding appropriations should include the inflation adjustment or run afoul of the state constitution's Voter Protection Act.

``Without question, the Legislature faces substantial challenges in preparing the state's budget, particularly during difficult economic circumstances,'' the ruling said. ``But our Constitution does not permit the Legislature to change the meaning of voter-approved statutes by shifting funds to other purposes to meet other budgeting priorities.''

Republican lawmakers said they followed the law when they withheld the funding because the measure allowed for legislative discretion, as signaled by its use of the word ``or.''

``We think the Court of Appeals is wrong,'' said Rep. John Kavanagh, who heads the House appropriations committee, in a telephone interview Tuesday. ``We believe that `or' means `or.' And it says `or,' and that means you have a choice.''

Kavanagh said he expects lawmakers to increase school funding by $80 million in the upcoming budget.

``We have the money,'' Kavanagh said. ``But we believe that we should be able to decide where it goes.''

A spokesman for Brewer said Tuesday she has not taken a position on the lawsuit or on Horne's request for an appeal.

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